The Judge in the Asylum (Part 1 of 2)

Well into the 20th century, family members of people with mental health problems had little choice but to place their loved ones in asylums.    And with little hope of their ever coming out again.   Despite the occasional success story, most patients were often forgotten by the outside world and simply left to vegetate.   Though some medications were already available (including early tranquilizers such as chloral hydrate), people in asylums received little real help.   While medical advances were being slowly made (along with horrendous innovations such as shock therapy and lobotomies), only the most remarkable patients managed to earn their release.  A few remarkable patients would write about their experiences in a way that provided the outside world with a rare glimpse into their illness as well as what they experienced in the asylums.

One of these patients was Daniel Paul Shreber...

Born in Leipzig in 1842, Daniel Schreber was the third of five children.   His father, Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber was a physician and an authority on raising children, particularly in terms of how they should be Paul_Schreber[1]disciplined.    Moritz wrote more than thirty books highlighting the need for controlling the "crude nature" of children through discipline, order, cleanliness, correct posture, and muscle-building.   He also had a fanatical opposition to masturbation which he viewed as a vile practice that needed to be suppressed at all costs.   Moritz even developed a series of machines intended to correct posture and encourage right thinking.   One of these machines, the "coccyx miracle",  was designed to ensure that children remained upright at all times while sitting,   Other innovations prevented  prevents masturbation by extreme means.   To ensure that the lessons being taught were properly learned, children had their successes and failures reviewed in front of the entire family.   Physical punishments were used to reinforce the need for order and children were required to accept these punishments "without spite or discipline."

Despite his father's authoritarian ideals, it's still open to debate whether Daniel's early upbringing may have contributed to his later mental illness.   What little information there is on his early childhood comes from Daniel's own Memoirs as well as letters written by his sisters, all of which tended to downplay how they were raised by their parents.  In weighing the impact of Moritz' disciplinary practices had on his children, it should probably be pointed out that many of his five children later developed psychiatric problems later in life (including Daniel Paul).

The entire family was apparently rocked by Moritz' sudden death in 1861 although the greatest burden apparently fell on the oldest son, Daniel Gustav, who was already borderline psychotic (he would later commit suicide in 1877).   By the time of his father's death, Daniel Paul was  studying law and he would go on to establish himself as a lawyer and politician after passing the state bar exam.   A year after his brother's suicide, Daniel married Sabine Behr in 1878 and was appointed Landgerichtsdirektor (administrative director) of the District Court in Chemnitz.    Though he and Sabine never had children (only one of the five Schreber children ever did), his life seemed stable enough until he decided to run for public office during the Reichstag elections of 1884.  

Running as a candidate for the National Liberal party, it was his humiliating loss to a socialist, Bruno Geiser, that triggered Daniel's first nervous breakdown.    This led to a six-month hospitalization at the Psychiatric Hospital of Leipzig University where he was treated by the clinic director, Dr. Paul Flechsig.   As Daniel would later describe in his memoirs, his chief symptom at the time was severe hypochondria which, as he later noted in his Memoris, faded "without any occurrences bordering on the supernatural."  

After his release from the clinic, he returned to his legal career and held a number of prominent judicial positions.   Aside from Sabine suffering a series of miscarriages which ended any hope of their having children of their own, Daniel's life seemed happy enough.   At least at first...

In 1893, Schreber was appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeals and he also began developing new psychiatric symptoms.   As he would later write:

During this time I had several dreams to which I did not then attribute any particular significance, and which I would even today disregard … had my experience in the meantime not made me think of the possibility at least of their being connected with the contact which had been made with me by divine nerves. I dreamt several times that my former nervous illness had returned…. Furthermore, one morning while still in bed (whether still half asleep or already awake I cannot remember), I had a feeling which, thinking about it later when fully awake, struck me as highly peculiar. It was the idea that it really must be rather pleasant to be a woman succumbing to intercourse.

Despite being disturbed by the possibility of his old problems returning, he still carried out his new duties.   And then the problems began.  Along with insomnia, he also became aware of strange noises which kept him from sleeping.   Though he initially believed that a mouse in the walls was causing the noises, he eventually concluded that the sounds were "divine miracles."   The insomnia, as well as the noises he thought he was hearing, led him to believe that he was the target of a deliberate conspiracy intended to disturbed his sleep.  By November 9, the day before the anniversary of his father's death, he was disturbed enough by his thoughts of suicide to consult Flechsig.   He was then readmitted to Flechsig's clinic

Not only did his insomnia not improve but his suicidal thoughts became worse as well.   Of that time, he noted that, "I was completely ruled by the idea that there was nothing left for a human being for whom sleep could no longer be procured by all the means of medical art, but to take his life."   His condition became even worse after Sabine left on a four-day visit to her family home.   Not only was he convinced that he was the target of a conspiracy, but he suspected that Flechsig was involved.   He became convinced that "divine rays" were being focused on him by countless souls which were transforming him into a woman.   Along with fantasizing about having sex as a woman, he also interacted with voices only he could hear.  The voices were of people he knew, famous people he never met, animals, and various religious figures, all focusing on him and his special role in life. 

On June 29, 1894, Daniel Paul Schreber was transferred to the Royal Public Asylum at Sonnenstein.   During his stay, he was declared officially incompetent and Schreber submitted his own writ of appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse this decision.  It was also during this period that he began writing his Memoirs though he would not publish them until after his release in 1902.   Schreber's Memoirs would become a highly influential book in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, largely due to the influence of Sigmund Freud.    

To be continued












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